The group of Chinese nationals worked to steal the technology and file for patents in the United States and China, presenting themselves as the inventors, according to a criminal indictment released Tuesday. They are also charged with trying to obtain US trade secrets for universities and companies controlled by Bejing.
Among the suspects are Hao Zhang, Wei Pang and Jinping Chen, all three professors at the prestigious Tianjin University some 130 miles (209 kilometers) southeast of Beijing.
Zhang was arrested upon entering the US on Saturday, officials have said. The other five are believed to still be in China.
Selling to phone makers
The group was after so-called FBAR technology, which allows mobile phones and other devices to filter radio signals and improve performance. The alleged scheme dates back to 2006, targeting California-based Avago Technologies and Massachusetts-based Skyworks Solutions.
The indictment asserts that the men stole "recipes, source code, specifications, presentations, design layouts and other documents marked as confidential."
They planed to sell the FBAR components to companies including Nokia, Samsung, Motorola and LG, with Wei Pang boasting that the market for the products was worth an estimated $1 billion (about 900 million euros) per year.
'Copy directly to China'
Wei Pang and Hao Zhang met at the University of Southern California (USC) during their doctoral studies in electrical engineering. They were joined by another suspect and USC student, Huisui Zhang, according to the prosecutors.
After receiving their PHDs in 2006, Pang joined Avago and Zhang took a job at Skyworks.
According to US officials, Wei Pang sent an email to two other defendants soon after, forwarding notes he took during a work meeting.
"My work is to make every possible effort to find out about the process' every possible detail and copy directly to China," Wei Pang supposedly wrote.
Hao Zhang and Wei Pang resigned from their jobs in spring of 2009, and took jobs as professors at Tianjin University.
According to the FBI, Tianjin University used the stolen trade secrets to build an FBAR factory and to win government contracts to provide FBARs to "commercial and military entities."
Tech spies from the inside
David Johnson, FBI special agent in charge in San Francisco, called the scheme a "methodical and relentless effort by foreign interests to obtain and exploit sensitive and valuable US technology" by using people inside the country.
Hao Zhang, who appeared in front a Los Angeles magistrate on Monday, is facing up to 50 years in prison. All the other suspects, in case they are arrested, could also be convicted to decades behind bars.
dj/cmk (AFP, dpa, AP)